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US Navy Comsat Launches - Will International Partners Join?

Jul. 23, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By AARON MEHTA   |   Comments
The Mobile User Objective System located at Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Pacific, Wahiawa, Hawaii, is a next-generation narrowband tactical satellite system that planners hope will significantly improve ground communications for US forces.
The Mobile User Objective System located at Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Pacific, Wahiawa, Hawaii, is a next-generation narrowband tactical satellite system that planners hope will significantly improve ground communications for US forces. (US Navy)
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WASHINGTON — The US Navy’s next-generation military communications network is about to get a serious boost in capability, one that could dramatically improve field communications for the US military — and, perhaps in the future, international partners.

The second Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite, launched successfully July 19, will increase the coverage of the secure, worldwide 3G communications network for Navy and Marine personnel in the field. The legacy Ultra High Frequency (UHF) system in use by the Navy provides 2.4 kilobytes per second of digital voice only; MUOS upgrades that to 348 kb/s and adds the ability to transfer data.

When the Lockheed Martin-designed system is fully functional it will provide global communications coverage — a big change from traditional military satellite communications.

“Today, with traditional satcom systems, two users who want to communicate with each other have to be under the satellite. MUOS changes that,” Navy Capt. Paul Ghyzel, MUOS program manager, said during a July 15 conference call with reporters. “Because MUOS provides global coverage, it allows users to speak to any other user on the globe within the constellation coverage area.”

That global coverage could be very interesting to potential allies.

“We’ve discussed with the Navy and [the defense secretary’s office] about the potential for opening that up to the international community and we wait for their guidance on that,” said Iris Bombelyn, Lockheed’s vice president of narrowband communications. “We can certainly envision that kind of capability, should the US government want to do that.”

MUOS would not be the first Lockheed-designed US military satellite program to work with international partners. The Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) system, an Air Force program for protected military communications, also serves Canada, the UK and the Netherlands.

A program spokesman from the Navy declined to comment on potential partners, saying that decision would need to be made at the nation-to-nation level. But Brian Weeden, technical adviser with the Secure World Foundation, said allied nations will “absolutely” be interested in MUOS.

“I could certainly see [the Defense Department] offering it as a service to partners and allies,” said Weeden, who worked on space issues in the Air Force, adding that allies operating in the Pacific might be particularly interested because of MUOS’ ability to reach mobile users.

Six Months to Operation

After launch, the satellite will spend roughly nine days achieving orbit, during which time it will operate on battery; that is followed by a period of one to three days during which the solar array and antennas unfurl.

It will take six months for the satellite to be fully operational, at which point it will join the first MUOS satellite, launched in 2012, in providing coverage for US military forces. Each satellite covers “approximately” a third of the globe, Ghyzel said.

“Depending on where the second spacecraft is placed, there may be some overlap with the first spacecraft, but that’s by design to improve capacity and to improve robustness,” Ghyzel said, adding that the region the second MUOS system will be deployed to cover has not been finalized.

The MUOS constellation will include five total satellites; four will be active, while the fifth will operate as an on-orbit spare. All five are identical in design and capability. Satellite three is scheduled for launch next summer, with units four and five following at roughly 12-month intervals.

Each unit is designed to last a minimum of 15 years, but in recent years military satellite programs have routinely exceeded their suggested lifetimes.

With that long a lead, Bombelyn said Lockheed has not begun to develop a follow-on successor.

“Right now we don’t have any plans to do that. We certainly would be open to that possibility if the government was interested,” she said. “We probably wouldn’t be developing that on our own. In this environment, it’s very difficult to allocate [internal research and development] dollars to this kind of endeavor unless you have some sort of indication of interest.”

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